This would not be easy. I was scheduled to meet with Fiorenzo Dogliani, the amministratore delegato , for Beni di Batasiolo, a winery in Piedmont, at a restaurant called Risibisi…and I don’t speak Italian. My mono-lingual constitution was rattled, but Batasiolo has a reputation for primo Barolo and Barbaresco, so I’m hoping that Signore Dogliani speaks English.
He does, a little, and fortunately for me, Dogliani was traveling with his U.S. Sales Director, Ricardo March, who speaks very good English. We settled in to a window table at Risibisi, but before we talked about the wines, I needed to be clear on the meaning of the name Beni di Batasioli and why the Doglianis didn’t use their own family name. Dogliani explained that when the property was purchased in 1978, the he and his brothers decided not to use the family name for the wine brand because of the confusion with two DOC wines: Dolcetto di Dogliani and Dolcetto di Dogliani Superoire, so they re-named it Beni di Batasoli. The name Beni di Batasiolo is tied directly to the land in La Morra, the heart of the Barolo district. In the Piedmontese dialect, “beni” means farmhouse with vineyards and when the Dogliani family purchased the estate, there were seven “beni” and now there are nine.
“We are the largest family producer in Piedmont with 345 acres of vineyards,” says Dogliani. Impressive, especially when the whole of Barolo is only 173 acres, producing 12 million bottles of wine annually. Batasiolo may be maxed out on total vineyard acreage, because there is no open land within DOC Barolo. “Barolo is planted out, “claims Dogliani, “and old vines can only be replanted using the same plants.” Within the DOC zone, Batasiolo owns and farms five plots in different Barolo crus: Bofani, Cerequio, Briccolina, Boscareto and the latest to join the line, Brunate. All of these Barolos, except Brunate, as well as the many other Batasiolo wines, are imported by Boisset Family Estates.
Dogliani says that the features distinguishing one single vineyard Barolo from another are elevation of the vineyard site and soil composition. Boscareto, in Serralunga d’Alba, is a 33-acre plot at 1,400 feet above sea level. Briccolina, also in Serralunga, is a four acre vineyard at just over 1,300 feet above sea level. The 18-acre Bofani Vineyard, in Montforte d’Alba stands at 870 feet, the lowest of the five Barolo vineyards. Cerequio, near La Morra, is more-or-less in the middle, about nine acres, at 1,155 feet. Soil compositions range from clay and grey marl around Serralunga d’Alba to sandstone and calcareous marl near Monteforte d’Alba. Batasiolo also markets a DOCG Barolo from a selection of vineyards in the Langhe and a Barolo Riserva, mainly from hillside vineyards in Serralunga d’Alba.
Although it seems like splitting hairs, these micro differences show up in the wines. The three vineyards above 1,000 feet produce Nebbiolo grapes that are a little higher in natural acidity with more clearly defined flavors, while Bofani, a slightly warmer site, yields wines with richer flavors and a bit of minerality derived from the calcareous marl soils. Additionally, Dogliani maintains that temperatures throughout the growing season are important. When asked if he agrees that this collection of vineyard factors could collectively be called terroir, Dogliani ignored the question.
But he did have something to say about the changing character of Barbera in Piedmont. “For 20 years, Barbera had higher acidity than Nebbiolo, but now acidity is lower, mainly because yields are lower and the wines are fermented at lower temperatures today.” A distinguishing character of northern Italian Barbera has always been the brisk mouth-watering natural acidity. But Dogliani emphasizes that the biggest problem facing Barbera producers today is the change in fermentation temperatures.
The choice of which oak to use for maturing red wines, the more traditional Slovenian or the newer French, has been an on-going question for years in Piedmont. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Giacomo Bologna shocked the traditionalists when he aged his Bricco dell Uccellone Barbera in new French oak barrels rather than large Slovenian oak ovals, setting the stage for a series of luxury avant-garde Barberas that were often priced higher than traditional Barberas. Today, while Batasiolo prefers Slovenian oak for many of its red wines, the moderately priced ($24) Batasiolo Barbera d’Alba is aged in French oak. Dogliani says that the characteristics of tight-grained Slovenian oak, with its higher tannins and more astringent flavors, seem to compliment his Batasiolo Barbaresco and regular Barolo, but curiously not for the higher acidity Barbera which often needs taming.
Batasiolo red wines have a purity of fruit and good balancing acidity, especially the single-vineyard Barolos. Of the two I tasted, both from the 2004 vintage, my slight preference is for Vignetto Bofani for its supple flavors, sweet spice and the subtle hint of anise. The artful use of both French and Slovenian oaks is another positive nod to the winemaking at Batasiolo. Supple yet firm tannins is a distinguishing feature of Nebbiolo, a similarity it shares with Syrah.
Life is not all red at Batasiolo, although the emphasis is strongly on red wines, including three different Dolcettos. The Piedmontese company also makes a Langhe Chardonnay, Moscato d’Asti as well as Roero Arneis and Gavi, the two white wines that lend some support to the uneven balance of red and white wines in Piemonte. Although wine lovers knowledgeable of Gavi and Arneis tend to favor one more than the other, Dogliani says it’s a matter of personal taste and no one is better. I prefer Gavi for its refreshing natural acidity, floral aromatics and flavor and the trace of bitterness in the finish that sets Gavi up as a good compliment with light summer foods.
Italy offers such a wide variety of good and interesting red wines that no one should have to decide between the Sangiovese-based red wines of the south and the Nebbiolo reds of the north. Like most American wine drinkers, my first exposure to Italian red wine was Chianti, but after tasting Barolo, my preferences turned north. Batasiolo Barolos helped, Fiorenzo Dogliani furthered my understanding and appreciation of Barolo and as I was leaving the tasting, I learned that Risibisi, the name of the Italian restaurant in Petaluma, California, where I met with Dogliani, is the Venetian name for a popular dish of rice and peas. Salute!